Reasons to Disbelieve

The other day I was watching a video on YouTube wherein Stephen Meyer and Pete Ward were debating intelligent design.  During the question and answer session, one of the audience members asked the two men about the weaknesses of their own positions.  By mutual consent, the two men passed on the question.  Far be it for two advocates in a public debate to be honest about the weakness of their own positions.  Perhaps I am wrong, but in this question I heard the plaintive cry of a kindred spirit.  “Am I the only one in the world who finds these issues difficult?  Or are these issues obvious to everyone but me?”

I don’t know about you, but intellectual honesty and integrity are very important considerations when I am contemplating arguments made by other people.  If a person is intellectually honest, then I will take their argument seriously and investigate what they have said further.  If their point is a good one, I am likely to modify my position to accommodate it.  If, on the other hand, I am listening to someone who is not intellectually honest, then I am unlikely to consider their argument as being worthwhile enough to investigate further once our conversation is done.  If they are not honest then I am unlikely to learn anything useful by taking them seriously.  It is a matter of trust and determining whose arguments are worth further exploration and whose arguments are not worth the trouble.

Of course, the trick is to determine who is intellectually honest and who is not.  How is this to be done?  In the course of my experience, I have learned a few “rules of thumb” that seem to work very well in this regard.  If you are arguing with someone about politics or religion or some other issue and they admit that you have some points on your side and that the issue is not completely cut and dried, then it is usually a safe bet that they are intellectually honest and that taking the time to explore their arguments in more detail will be beneficial and worthwhile.  If, on the other hand, the issue is cut and dried to your opponent and there is absolutely no evidence on your side and absolutely no doubt at all in that persons mind, then it is usually safe to say that that person is a fanatic with whom reason is impossible and their arguments are not worth exploring any further.

In this vein, I think it is important as intellectually honest Christians to admit that there are problems and difficulties with what we believe.  If we are honest about our own doubts and issues, then we can reasonably appeal to those who are honestly considering the question.  They will say, “this person is dealing with the questions honestly, therefore I can trust their truthfulness and explore their arguments further.”  If, on the other hand, we behave as if there are no reasonable grounds for doubting Christianity, then they will say, “How can I trust what this person is telling me?  He is saying that it is obvious that what he is saying is true, but it is not obvious to me as it has not been obvious to many others before me.”  Intellectual honesty is essential for Christian apologists who want to have an impact for the truth.

Now, of course, some immature Christians might interject some misinterpreted Scripture at this point.  They might quote Psalm 14:1 and say “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” and conclude from this that there is no basis for doubt.  There are two points that I would make to such a believer.  First, that doubting the existence of God is vastly different from expressing the certitude that God does not exist.  Second, that while God might be able to demonstrate to those who do not believe that they were foolish not to believe in him, I am not God and such a demonstration is beyond my capabilities.  I have to settle for making the best arguments I can and hoping that God will use what I have done for the good of those around me and his glory.

At this point, a more mature Christian might argue that James has told us that we are not to doubt.  “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”  (James 1:6)  The response that I would make to such an objection is that choosing not to let doubt deter you from living the life of faith as James has taught us is not the same as arguing to those who do not believe that there is no basis for doubt.  To the contrary, it would not be necessary to choose not to doubt if there were no reasonable grounds for disbelief.

Having established that we should be honest about reasons to doubt the Christian faith and having written in a number of posts that I believe that Christianity is the most rational possible belief system (The Demand for Evidence, King of the Marketplace, The Case for Christianity, The Beatific Vision) let us also consider the strongest reasons for doubt that I have come across in my twenty year Christian journey:

  • The problem of Hell
  • Barbarism in the Old Testament
  • Mythology in the Old Testament
  • The Flood of Noah
  • The evidence for human evolution
  • The problem of evil, pain and suffering
  • The bad behavior of Christian believers
  • Biblical contradictions and errors

These are the primary intellectual difficulties that I have encountered as I have struggled to live the Christian life over the last twenty years.  They are in no particular order as, at any given time, any one of them might have been more troublesome than the others.

If you have read what I have written on this site, these issues will seem familiar to you.  They constitute the bulk of the topics that I have discussed in my essays, though I would not claim to have answered these questions completely.  Rather, my approach has been to present my best answers to these questions in the hope that other people will benefit.  As a brief overview of what I have discussed in the past, let us go through these topics one at a time starting with those for which I have no answers.

The Flood of Noah

As far as I am concerned, the single greatest reason to disbelieve in the truth of Christianity and the reliability of the Bible.  I have given my best thoughts on this subject in my essay “The Flood of Noah”.

The Evidence for Human Evolution

In a video that is available on YouTube, an internet atheist who calls himself AronRa presents powerful evidence that human beings are correctly categorized as apes, that we are closely related to chimpanzees and that we have wisdom teeth and other features such as the coccyx that strongly suggest that we are descended from earlier primates.  This evidence makes it extremely difficult to believe that we were specially created by God and made in his image.

Now Reasons to Believe has given their best shot at answering the evidence from wisdom teeth and I have discussed the coccyx, but this still leaves powerful evidence that seems to support the idea that human beings are the descendants of earlier hominids.  One can argue that this evidence is not conclusive evidence of a process of naturalistic evolution, but one is still left with the disturbing question of why God would have created those made in his image in such a way as it looks like they are descended from earlier hominids.  On the other hand, one can believe that there is evidence that the evolutionary process was guided and one can thus salvage a close approximation to the Genesis narrative, but this again leaves us with the hugely problematic question of why God created us in this way.

The Barbarism of the Old Testament

When I consider the barbarism of the Old Testament, it cuts to the heart of why I am a Christian.  As I have said elsewhere, I am primarily a Christian because I need God’s help to have life, to have health and to be the person that I want to be.  But is the God depicted in the Old Testament capable of helping me to be more like the Jesus Christ depicted in the New Testament?  Because this issue cuts to the heart of my faith, I have addressed it more than any other.

I gave an overview of my position on the barbarism in the Old Testament in my essay, “The Reformed Christian Quiz“.  I expressed my sympathy for the view that in order to get morality out of the Bible that one has to “cherry pick” the good bits in my essay “Quantum Mechanics in Kindergarten“.  I have also argued against thinking that human beings could ever be good like God in my essay, “Bad Theology Part 1:  Adam in the Garden“.  I have discussed the idea that Moses was righteous by faith and not by works in my essay “The Greatest Sins in Human History“.  I have also begun the process of reinterpreting the Old Testament from the perspective of considering Moses and the other Old Testament prophets as sinners in my “Throwing Moses Under the Bus” series of essays.   This is a tremendous problem and I have addressed it a great deal.

The Mythology of the Old Testament

Quite apart from the problem presented by the barbarism of the Old Testament is the problem presented by the mythical character of many of the stories.  From the giant Goliath who was slain by David, to the thousand men killed by Samson to the fish that swallowed Jonah, the Old Testament seems filled with the kind of narratives that one associates with fantastic mythologies that are presumed to have been made up by Christian believers.  While I have presented my own inadequate treatment of this problem in my essay “Mythology in the Bible “, I recently found a YouTube video that depicts a discussion between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien which presents a much superior treatment of this subject.

The Problem of Hell

The idea that a being that describes itself as being love incarnate would torture those that rejected him with eternal fire is counter-intuitive to say the very least.  Christians who argue that human beings deserve such a fate because of a finite amount of sin are callous in the extreme.  I have argued in”The Nature of Hell” that hell is a relative condition similar to being a quadriplegic where there is no direct suffering just the lack of God’s blessing, but intellectual honesty forces one to admit that the literal flames of eternal torment make more sense in the context of the Old Testament and its severe judgments.

The Bad Behavior of Christian Believers

Despite all the evidence against the faith, one would almost have to believe it if Christians were markedly superior to other human beings in terms of their behavior.  In my experience, however, this is not the case.  Consider the fact that the divorce rate of people who attend Christian church regularly in the United States is statistically identical to the divorce rate of those who do not. **  While one does occasionally find Christians who are exceptionally forgiving or kind, one occasionally finds these people outside the church as well.  If the Holy Spirit indwells believers with the power and love of Christ, then why is the evidence of this not more clear?  I have discussed this problem in my essays, “Encounter with a Human Derelict“, “The After Action Report” and also a YouTube video on Gandhi, but it is far from solved.

** I have seen this statistic used many times, but I honestly don’t know where it comes from.  Could it be false?  Let us assume that it is true. 

The Problem of Evil, Pain and Suffering

To me, the problem of pain and suffering in this world is intricately entangled with the question of God’s purpose for this world.  The whole reason I started this site was to write a book one section at a time that deals with this question.  The working title of this book is, “From First Principles:  A Christian Apologetic” and the idea is that I take some very basic starting principles as assumptions and derive a religion with the basic characteristics of Christianity from these assumptions.  The conclusion of the book is that given the truth of the assumptions, something very much like Christianity would have to be true.  (see “Christianity Without the Bible“)

As a part of this derivation, it is my intent to show that the purpose of this world is to demonstrate to human beings that we need God’s help to love one another and thus realize our fullest potential as living, loving and thinking creatures.  I have not yet completed all of the writing I have to do on this topic, but some of it can be found in my essays, “Bad Theology Part 2:  The Purpose of this World” and “Speculations on the Divine Plan“.

Biblical Contradictions and Errors

In the unpublished drafts section of the management console for this site is an essay entitled “Biblical Reliability” wherein I have outlined this question and my basic answer regarding it.  I hope to finish it up at some point in the future.

The Struggle for Faith

In order to have an impact on those who do not believe, Christians must persuade those around us that we are aware of the many difficulties with our faith and that we are facing them with our eyes wide open.  If we do not do this, we risk appearing as naive, unthinking people who are engaged in wishful thinking or worse, deceivers who are seeking to sell some snake oil for our own benefit.  If we are honest about the difficulties with Christian belief, on the other hand, then those around us may find that the evidence we have for our hope that love, joy, peace, truth, rationality, free will and eternal life actually exist is compelling.

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear (1 Peter 3:15)

 

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Biblical Difficulties and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Reasons to Disbelieve

  1. This is a good article. I have more problems with belief in a creator god than you mention here. One of the more prominant of these is the fact that what you have stated that you need god for, what you urge fellow believers to do and urge them to behave etc. do not require a god. If I listed these things and marked off the ones that no god is required for the list would include only one thing: eternal life/afterlife/heaven

    This is a concept which was not introduced by gods but by humans and most likely came to social consciousness via a fear of death. That is to say the idea is not theistic. You have chosen to belief that you can defeat death by believing in a god which clearly is not the best of all possible gods we can imagine. Here’s the twist, if I can conceive of a better god, then the one under discussion can’t be the one true god with all the attributes given to YHWH.

    Yes, YHWH is meant to be inconceivable in nature yet, if I can conceive of a god better than is described in the YHWH’s own book how can I consider YHWH to be a god? I think that is the unspoken question that theists need to answer in their struggle for faith.

    • MyAtheistLife,

      Every time you make a comment, I decide I need to do a few new posts. Thanks for your valuable feedback. A few comments:

      On the idea that you can conceive of a better God than the I AM described in the Bible:

      I think that what you mean by this is actually that you believe you can conceive of a God whose behavior you like better, not a God who is actually better. It is difficult to conceive of something better than what the God of the Bible claims to be. He claims to be omniscient, omnipotent and love incarnate and he describes what he means by love in 1 Corinthians 13 in a passage so beautiful that many atheists would agree that it is beautiful. The problem with the Bible is the obvious disjoin between what God claims and what the Bible says. If he loves everybody so much, then why are children raped on a daily basis? This is the problem of evil. If he is so forgiving and merciful, why the terrible atrocities in the Old Testament? This is the problem of the Old Testament.

      On the idea that you don’t think I need God for various things, you are not in a very good position to make such a claim. I hope this never happens to you, but in my own life I came to a point where I had such hatred, anger and despair that I would either have killed myself or some other people. The teachings of Jesus Christ allowed me to get through that time and had it not been for his glorious example and promises, I could have become a monster. This is the source of my unalterable loyalty to Christ and it is unarguable. You cannot even in principle know me well enough to speak intelligently on the matter. You may not need God to be a decent person, but I certainly do.

      Thanks again for your comments,

      rob

      • Thank you for your kind comments. I have a couple of thoughts on your reply
        “I think that what you mean by this is actually that you believe you can conceive of a God whose behavior you like better, not a God who is actually better.”
        What I mean is that if the behavior of a god as described in the very book that defines his is not as good as the behavior I can conceive of in a different god, then the god in the book is either not what is claimed or I can conceive of a better god. Because I can conceive of a better behaved god with the same attributes…..

        I too have been to the edge and looked down… many times. It was never a god that brought me back from the edge. Perhaps for yourself you can’t see any way to get off the ledge except for a god, but I can. If I can, then it goes that no god is necessary.

        The philosophical argument is not about whether you or any number of other people believe they need a god, but whether it is universally or objectively true that we need a god.

        I cannot think of an analogy which does not seem silly in light of the comparison to a god, or disrespectful. The upshot is this: because you can’t see life without the need for a god does not equate to humans cannot live without god. This makes your belief a personal belief, a subjective belief. That is the thrust and parry of my comments.

        Please note that I’m not belittling you for your personall belief but simply arguing that it is not universal nor objective truth such that arguments that it is either are wrong and therefore make poor arguments for belief on anything but a subjective basis. This is problematic because subjective belief or truth is not what monotheism offers us.

      • MyAtheistLife,

        “What I mean is that if the behavior of a god as described in the very book that defines his is not as good as the behavior I can conceive of in a different god, then the god in the book is either not what is claimed or I can conceive of a better god. Because I can conceive of a better behaved god with the same attributes…..”

        The problem with this is that in order to understand God’s behavior well enough to critique it, you would have to be much closer to omniscient than any human being can be. In my essay on Narcissism (wherein I respond to a comment made by Sam Harris), I paraphrase a quote given to us by Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I paraphrase it as “The straight forward application of any set of principles done by a being of sufficiently advanced knowledge would be gibberish”. If you cannot solve a simple physics problem with 1000 bodies using Newtonian mechanics (can you?), then what makes you think that you could solve moral problems involving billions of people with unknown constraints? I suspect that your belief here is that human beings are essentially good and with that assumption you believe that God should just explain things to us patiently and we would do what is right. I do not share this assumption.

        Also, I don’t use my subjective experience as evidence for God. What I do is to make the statement that every human being needs God and allow other human beings to decide this issue for themselves. My methodology here is the same as the one used by Jesus, “He who has the ears to hear, let him hear.” If you think that you can live life without God, then have at it. I am offering hope to those who know they could become monsters because 1) they have done something inexcusable or 2) they know they are capable of it.

        rob

      • rob,
        If you don’t mind, rather than reply here, I’m going to make a post on this.

        Happy New Year

  2. marclebard says:

    I loved this post, for the most part. As an atheist it’s encouraging when I find common grounds like this when talking about intellectual honesty in debates. The nature of a debate lends itself to trying to seem absolutely confident, because sadly, it’s rarely a conversation that’s going on. The audience of debaters is not his opponent. Each person seems to care little about the other person’s POV. Instead, it’s usually just an appeal to the audience to see which person sounds better.

    This is why conversations are infinitely better.

    My gripe is that I feel like you miss the fundamentals in your list. Be it that you don’t find it that problematic, or that mayhaps others haven’t brought it up, these questions are I think an important addition.

    The closest I feel you had was the objection based on Christians’ own struggles with their faiths. But as my post on the second chapter of your book emphasizes, my issues were more about the justifications for faith more than any menial issue of morality or evolutionary science. Simply put it, my views on such things are that our world is the conclusion of any postulation about our world. IF god is real and created the universe, then evolution is of no issue considering it was in his plan. IF god isn’t real, the world is still no different than it was, aside for any religious conclusions based on god’s existence. If god exists, morals come from that being. If god doesn’t morals DON’T come from that being. Simply enough? Sometimes I feel like the arguments about morality stumble over the fact that it’s an unnecessary step to make with both arguments are precluded by the fundamental one.

    The fundamentals, to me at least, relies on the ideas of faith and justification.

    “What is faith to the believer?”

    I’ll quickly rehash how if faith is based on the bible, then it SEEMS to be nothing more than hope in the unseen. The commonly coined blind faith. Several problems with that, I think most would agree. However, if it’s the idea of trust, then it’s reasonable to have evidence to justify the trust. With god’s description, evidences for such a being seem nonexistent to an atheist. The being is absolutely unknowable. Does this preclude god from existing? Of course not, but it’s enough of a reason to become an atheist, ergo not believe in a god.

    This is where the kalam arguments and design arguments in my experience are introduced, as well as the accuracy of the bible.

    I don’t know how well explained my point is, but I’m basically just saying that the question of why we need faith in the first place is a fundamental point that I at least feel deserves to be on the list.

    • Marc,

      The question of why we need faith is an excellent one and its absence from my list both in Chapter 2 and Reasons to Disbelieve is a puzzling one. I cannot think why I should have neglected it. Somehow I never think of it as an objection to faith. I guess I always consider the question at hand to be a debate topic such as you might find at some debating society, “Resolved: There are good reasons to have faith in Jesus Christ”. Because I tend to frame the topic in this way, I just assume that the reason for faith is understood.

      To admit that I have never thought of it as an argument against Christianity is not to admit that I haven’t addressed the issue. I have written about this question in my essay “Absolute Power” and in my YouTube video “Why Does God Require Faith“. Chapter 5 of my book (not yet posted) also addresses the question of why God’s plan for humanity requires faith. I should get around to posting that in the next few months.

      Thanks again for your excellent questions and comments.

    • Marc,

      One other thing. I have had a problem with that Hebrews 11:1 verse for years. I wrote an essay a while back where I propose a different wording that changes the meaning. See my essay, “Faith as Evidence“.

      • marclebard says:

        I’m going leave a blog post sort of outlining my idea of faith and responses to your points about it, given that if I keep formulating responses like I am you may have comments from me centered around the same issue in different places and that is no good, aha. I’ll let you know when I have that done so we can hopefully continue the conversation!

      • Marc,

        I have to be honest and tell you that my desire to continue this exchange has taken a serious drubbing. Unless I am wrong, you expressed your belief that God is impossible when you said:

        It’s also why I could witness the impossible and yet not conclude that something else I think is impossible can be the only explanation.

        To me, the idea of a human being with human limitations believing he knows enough to say that God is impossible is . . . what is the word . . . ridiculous? hubristic? ego-maniacal? The strongest statement that a man of understanding can make along these lines is the statement of personal incredulity, “Given what I know of the universe, God does not seem possible.”

        My purpose on this website is to help people who are looking for hope, purpose, meaning and love answer the questions that come up when they consider the Christian worldview in their search for truth. To that end, I make arguments of the form, “This is the difficulty and this is why I believe we have a reason to hope that this difficulty is not insurmountable.” I am not trying to prove that God exists or that Christ is real to atheists who have already come to the unalterable conclusion that God is impossible. This would be a waste of time. I do, however, appreciate your comments as they help me to strengthen my arguments for those who are still undecided.

        God Bless,

        rob

      • marclebard says:

        I’ve no problem with discontinuing the conversation. But I have to say that you’re entirely misunderstanding the point if your problem is that I don’t think god is possible. It’s not a position that’s even close to being “unalterable” given that it’s based on what I currently know.

        ” The strongest statement that a man of understanding can make along these lines is the statement of personal incredulity, “Given what I know of the universe, God does not seem possible.””

        This is pretty much my position, very few can ACTUALLY say that given their knowledge the know that something is completely impossible about anything. Aside from logical contradictions like a square circle, I’d dare say none could. But that position alone is enough to support the quoted statement that makes you think that I think god is absolutely impossible.

        Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. No event, impossible or not, can be used as proof for something else that’s impossible. Semantically, I of course don’t mean absolutely impossible, but seemingly impossible. “This does not seem possible given what I know and don’t know”

        So if someone talks of god giving them a miraculous healing, the healing and the cause of the healing, god, would be questioned separately. “How do you know this healing was supernatural and how do you know this cause of supernatural healing was god?” So yes, if I experienced a healing that I could not naturally explain given my knowledge, I would neither be at a point of knowledge to say it was supernatural, nor natural unknown cause, nor any supernatural being. I would simply be at a point enough to say it happened, and even then it’s worth making sure it’s not a hallucination.

        “I am not trying to prove that God exists or that Christ is real to atheists who have already come to the unalterable conclusion that God is impossible. ”

        In reality, I guarantee you that very few atheists, theists, or humans in general will try and claim to you things in an absolute and negative form, simply because it’s much harder to completely disprove something than it is to prove it. Though if your desire for talking isn’t directly related to talking about the existence of god or christ either way, we may have to part ways. I wouldn’t want to continue in a direction in conversation you don’t desire to go to. If so, thanks for the talk because either way you still do a good job of explaining and writing without falling to many stereotypical responses that I come across.

      • Marc,

        I was gratified to learn that you were not insane and I will continue our discussion, but I am currently very busy so it will take me some time to address some of your other points. If you ever finish that post, let me know.

        rob

        In reality, I guarantee you that very few atheists, theists, or humans in general will try and claim to you things in an absolute and negative form, simply because it’s much harder to completely disprove something than it is to prove it.

      • marclebard says:

        I’ve come across the same sort of spate of content due to being busy as well, though I’m trying to be honest with myself so I ended up chopping off a large chunk from it anyway. I might have misdirected my energies towards evidence into faith, given that most feel faith is evidence based. If that’s the case it’s not a problem, and while I still think faith can be dangerous when it’s insisted beyond evidence, it’s not the biggest brunt of the foundational issues brought up. But it’s always refreshing to read your comments as opposed to the many abrasive ones I and likely you come across. Good luck on whatever busies you!

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